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St. John's vs Xavier preview: Johnnies go for the season sweep as they ride the bubble

For the seniors, this week is a huge opportunity.

John Alber

This week, St. John's has two home games at Madison Square Garden - two games that will likely determine their postseason fate. St. John's has won four of their last five, but has the team turned a corner in time to earn a winning Big East record?

Can they defeat tonight's opponent, the Xavier Musketeers, for a second time this season? The Musketeers played St. John's evenly except for a stretch in the latter stage of the first half - and they, too, are fighting for their NCAA Tournament hopes.

How to watch

Tonight's pivotal contest at Madison Square Garden against Xavier tip-off at 8 PM. on FOX Sports 1 (and Fox Sports Go). Joe Davis and Donny Marshall, who called St. John's vs Seton Hall on Saturday, are the announcers. St. John’s radio broadcast will be on 970 AM-WNYM with John Minko and Brandon Tierney.

Betting odds

St. John's is favored by one point tonight at home.

Scouting St. John's

St. John's defeated the Musketeers 78-70 at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati, a strong win for the squad. Can they do it again? Can the Johnnies get transition shots again against a more prepared Xavier? Can they counter X's size with speed and tenacity?

If so, this team may find itself on the right side of the bubble - though winning three of the next four, and earning a 10-8 Big East record - would be very helpful for postseason hopes. A .500 record or worse in conference play will leave the Johnnies in sixth place or lower in the league, a league that could reasonably expect five squads to make the NCAA Tournament...

...Depending on "bid theives", bubble teams that step up late in their conference play/ conference tournaments to snatch an invite to the Big Dance.

St. John's won an emotionally charged game over Seton Hall on Saturday, coming from behind to beat the rivals from across the Hudson in front of an amped Carnesecca Arena crowd.

The seniors hope it's their last game at Carnesecca; if they play in the NIT, they will assuredly have a few games scheduled for there.

No team of seniors wants the NIT.

The Johnnies started Amar Alibegovic at center, part of a rotating cast of players who have started since Chris Obekpa was disciplined for his elbow against Butler's Tyler Wideman.

Even with a seven-man rotation - really, only six played ten minutes or more - the Johnnies showed crisp ball movement, an aggressive mindset (39% of the team's shots were in transition), a deft shooting touch from outside the arc and some physicality in a wild game.

Rysheed Jordan had only one turnover and shot 4/8 from beyond the arc. His low-mistake performances are key for St. John's; without him, they depend on Sir`Dominic Pointer (who has stepped up to the plate), D`Angelo Harrison (always the focus of the defense's attention) and Phil Greene IV (who is a streaky shooter).

Scouting Xavier

Against St. John's, center Matt Stainbrook mentioned that the team wasn't communicating well defensively, especially in transition. St. John's tore into the Xavier defensive shape - taking 29% of their shots in transition but also getting good matchups in the halfcourt - and left Chris Mack's team scrambling for answers.

But it's only been two games since that contest. How much do you put stock in recent results?

Xavier was led by a strong performance by Dee Davis to defeat their crosstown rivals the Cincinnati Bearcats. Davis had 16 points and eight assists in the two-point win, hitting 5/5 from beyond the arc and a free throw for good measure. The Musketeers squeezed out a two-point 59-57 win, with Cincy shooting 4/16 from beyond the arc; the Bearcats only managed six free throws against Chris Mack's packed-in defense.

Then Xavier blew out Butler - now tied for third in the conference - at Cintas Center as well, holding them to 37% shooting inside the arc.

Are those games blips, or confidence builders?

The stalwart big man for the Musketeers, Matt Stainbrook, has had some low-scoring games, adding only seven and four points, respectively, in the wins over Cincinnati and Butler. He's been more of a passer, dishing out four assists in the first game and five in the second, as he faces defensive attention.

If St. John's can make him hear footsteps in the form of Sir`Dominic Pointer - who came from the concession stands to block what looked to be an open layup by Stainbrook in the late stages of the St. John's win over the Musketeers - the Johnnies have to feel good with their chances against Dee and Myles Davis, neither of whom is particularly quick in terms of getting their shots off.

Still, star freshman Trevon Bluiett is a scorer who enjoyed a 16-point performance against St. John's. And forward Jalen Reynolds continues to be solid inside. And St. John's still doesn't have much size.

Can the Musketeers better use their interior advantage on the road? Or will their lack of defensive communication hurt them again?

St. John's Keys to the Game

Constant aggression: St. John's needs to set the tone at home against the Musketeers. Getting into a controlled halfcourt game against post size of Xavier won't be good for anyone on the St. John's roster.

Shoot with confidence: Chris Mack's squad will come out with fight - but their focus will likely be on keeping the Johnnies away from the rim. That's a good strategy, since St. John's is most effective in transition. But when halfcourt opportunities arise, Phil Greene, Rysheed Jordan, D`Angelo Harrison and Jamal Branch have to make the Musketeers pay for playing off of them... and use shot fakes to get into the paint and draw fouls.

Sharing is caring: Rysheed Jordan and his teammates need to keep up the solid vision from Saturday and keep the ball moving with the pass to expose weaknesses in the Xavier defense.

Score prediction

St. John's gets a dramatic and tight home win, 70-69.